Taking chemical weapons off the battlefield will be little relief to civilians and no help to the Free Syrian Army
"In terms of dealing with Syria's chemical stockpile, the agreement in Geneva between the US and Russia on Saturday is probably the best framework solution that anyone could have hoped for in the circumstances. Bashar al-Assad must report what stocks he holds within a week, rather than a month. UN inspectors must be on the ground, checking and verifying, by November, and the stockpiles themselves must be destroyed by the middle of next year. Even if some stocks escape this dragnet, as was the case when Muammar Gaddafi renounced chemical weapons in 2003, nothing remotely similar would have happened in an air strike, which may have temporarily degraded Mr Assad's command and control structure, but kept the stocks themselves intact. This solution keeps the international ban on the use of these horrendous weapons in place. The chemical weapons convention has just been strengthened.
But in terms of dealing with the Syrian civil war itself, we are today little closer to a second Geneva peace conference than we were last week. True, this agreement should be built on. And true, if Russia can be used as a moderating lever on Mr Assad, so too can Iran. This deal, if it goes ahead, will allow, or at least not hinder, diplomatic re-engagement with Tehran. Starting a substantive dialogue with the moderate conservative president, Hassan Rouhani, is indeed made more urgent than ever, because there is now more doubt in Israel that Barack Obama would ever authorise strikes against Iran's nuclear installations. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, may be about to talk himself into launching the attack he has already postponed on at least one occasion. Which is probably why John Kerry's first stop on Sunday was Jerusalem.
A bleaker view is to be had on the ground in rebel-held Syria. The rebels see Mr Assad as strengthened by the deal. Giving up weapons which were anyway becoming a liability is a small sacrifice for the implied protection from an air strike which he will secure for at least one year. His chemical weapons stocks were never the crown jewels they were described as being. He has allegedly used them on 14 different occasions before, but always on a small scale – enough to terrify the civilian population, but in small enough quantities to escape verification. It is no exoneration of Mr Assad to say that the most likely explanation for the massacre in Ghouta in Damascus was that it may have been the work of an overzealous local commander. Taking these weapons off the battlefield will be little relief to civilians, who are coming under fire from all manner of conventional high explosive, and no help to the Free Syrian Army. It has yet to see the arms the US promised it, and views the failure to come good on the threat of air strikes as nothing short of a betrayal. It is giving up any hope that America wants to help it. With clashes between its units and jihadis in the north growing in intensity, the FSA is engaged in a three-sided battle to stay relevant. The stronger the jihadi brigades get, the easier it will be for Mr Assad and Russia to present this as a conflict with terrorists. None of this presages a swift return to the negotiating table. On the contrary, it is more likely that the fighting will intensify, with the strategic calculus weighted heavily in favour of the person with the aircraft, missiles and tanks.
Last week Russian diplomacy was at its opportunistic peak. But its arguments that Mr Assad had not used chemical weapons were specious. The Russians had only jumped into the vacuum created by the vacillations of a war-weary US. Mr Obama has to devise a credible strategy for stopping this war – at least something more substantial than wish fulfilment. With the numbers of refugees growing daily, containment is a dream. So too is an intervention-lite policy, as there is no sign of the balance of power on the battlefield being tipped. All efforts must now go into persuading Tehran that Mr Assad has become to Iran what chemical weapons became for him – a liability, and a roadblock to a sanctions-free future."